Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat – In this interview, GCC Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Bin Hamad al Attiyah speaks to Asharq Al-Awsat about the upcoming GCC summit due to be held in Muscat.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) In light of the regional and international changes to the economic and security situation, what are the most prominent issues that will be discussed in the Muscat summit?
A) The Muscat summit will prioritise dealing with the challenges facing regional stability, and will also pay special attention to dealing with economic issues. A supplementary meeting for Foreign Ministers of Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] states will take place on December 28 and the topics that will be discussed by the ministers include the recommendations made by subcommittees after the preliminary stages, as well as the drafting of the final statement.
There are a number of important issues that the leaders of the GCC states will focus on, most prominently the Palestinian cause, the situation in Iraq, ties with Iran and its ongoing seizure of three UAE islands. [They will also discuss] the international development [of the GCC] and methods of consolidating GCC cooperation with regards to security, political, and economic aspects of the Gulf, integration between [GCC] nations, coordination of regional and international activities, and the unification of views with regards to confronting international changes.
The results of the study of the Kuwaiti Paper on regional challenges (that was presented during the 2006 Riyadh Summit) will be reviewed, as well as the GCC’s support for the development of the Peninsula Shield [GCC military force]. In addition to this, the electricity integration project [interconnection of GCC countries power grids], water integration project [GCC desalinization project] and the GCC railway project will also be discussed.
There is no doubt that the Muscat summit will be of special significance as it is taking place at a time when the world is witnessing [important] regional and international changes and developments, and this will make the Muscat summit a historic one. These summits are usually an opportunity for the head of the GCC states to research and discuss issues relating to Gulf cooperation projects.
Q) You met recently with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and presented him with the Document of Views that he had given to the GCC five years previously. Could you shed some light on the results of what was achieved with regards to this document?
A) The Supreme Council was instructed to implement the Document of Views in coordination with the ministerial committees especially with regards to economic, security, educational and environmental issues. Everything that was mentioned within it was implemented with regards to these fields, and it demonstrated positive contributions to Gulf cooperation. I presented this Document of Views to King Abdullah after it was implemented, after it had been studied over five years. The Supreme Council in Muscat will be notified of the Document’s implementation and the increased performance and the removal of all obstacles.
Q) What is your view of expanding the GCC in theory, especially in light of comments made by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling for Iraq to be accepted into the GCC?
A) Based on the conviction of the GCC member-states, and the political will of their leaders, I would like to stress that the GCC was formed to endure; this assembly [of Gulf countries] protects the interest of its members, and contributes to the security and stability of the region.
As for the relationship between the GCC states and neighbouring countries, the GCC member states are connected to neighbouring countries on all levels, and have good ties with them within the frameworks of both the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] and the Arab League, and this includes Iraq. It would be useful if Iraq recovered from its ordeal, and returned to fulfil its normal role in the Arab, Islamic, and international spheres as a central and important state. As you know the GCC is governed by criteria for membership which is stipulated in the charter.
Q) What caused the blocking of a free-trade agreement between the GCC and the Europeans, despite the great optimism that such an agreement would be signed before the end of 2008?
A) Negotiations were held recently between the GCC member states and GCC secretariat on one hand, and the current European Union Chairman French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the European Union [EU] on the other, to discuss pending issues regarding a free-trade agreement between the GCC and EU that we hoped to sign before the end of 2008. However the European side would continually involve issues unrelated to trade [in the negotiations] which made the final stages of the negotiations arduous and difficult. We had hoped to reach a final agreement that would transform the relationship between the two parties into a strategic partnership, especially in the areas of the economy and financial investment, while also extending political relations as well. But the developments changed our expectations, and we informed the Europeans that it was unwise to continue with these negotiations that had already lasted eighteen years, and so a decision was taken to suspend free-trade negotiations with the EU.
We are currently working on signing a number of agreements. Last week we signed a free-trade agreement with Singapore, which is a giant in the Asian market. Soon we will sign an agreement with EFTA [European Free Trade Association] which is a trade-bloc of European countries who are not members of the EU, while we are also actively working with other friendly countries with whom we hope to sign economic agreements next year. We could not continue in this situation with the EU who retracted from signing an agreement at the last minute. We could not continue with negotiations which have no end in sight.
Q) What are the chances of the global financial crisis being discussed during the forthcoming Muscat summit?
A) There is no doubt that the global financial crisis will be included in the GCC leaders’ agenda at the upcoming meeting. It is imperative for GCC countries to improve their economies to help them overcome this crisis. Despite the connection between the economies of the GCC states and the global economy, they have the potential to navigate this crisis safely.
The GCC economies enjoy a high rate of growth which is expected to continue in spite of the crisis, thanks to the [economic] surplus these countries enjoyed over the past five years. This [economic surplus] is also due to the conservative policies of the GCC countries central banks which have left their financial institutions in a strong position to deal with the financial crisis that occurred in Europe and the USA, while also allowing them to protect their economies against any negative effects. The existing mechanisms for economic integration between the GCC states provided fertile grounds for cooperation and coordination to face the effects of the crisis, while maintaining the high rate of growth that GCC countries have been enjoying for years.
Q) What are the most prominent economic issues that will be raised at the forthcoming GCC summit?
A) Economic issues will be at the top of the Muscat summit agenda, in particular the issue of currency unification, as the GCC states have finalized a draft agreement on currency unification and the monetary council’s charter. These will be submitted to the Supreme Council during a session at the end of December. We are looking forward to establishing the monetary council next year and its duties will include fulfilling the technical and legislative requirements necessary for establishing the central bank, and arranging a schedule for the issuing of the unified currency and then launching the currency.
Q) The first Saudi-Qatari Joint Coordination Council was held recently and this reflected important development in inter-Gulf relations. How will this contribute to joint Gulf cooperation?
A) There is no doubt that Saudi-Qatari relations are everlasting and this is represented by the two leaders, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al Thani. The first Joint Coordination Council that was held between the two countries is a qualitative leap in strengthening firm and fraternal relations by virtue of fraternal and neighbourly ties, a common fate and a shared vision with regards to achieving stability, security and the prosperity in the region.
Q) What is the GCC’s position on piracy and to what extent is piracy related to the situation in Somalia?
A) Piracy is considered an international crime and accordingly, this requires cooperation between countries. In my viewpoint, it is just like terrorism, it requires international cooperation. I believe that the recent Security Council’s resolution expressed the same view.
The Somali issue needs to be studied carefully by the international community, which should pay more attention to it in order to intensify efforts and cooperation in line with the issued resolutions concerning Somalia. This is to ensure that a peaceful environment is established in the Horn of Africa and to enhance the opportunities of cooperation between regional countries, which will be reflected in peace, security and stability in Somalia and its neighbouring countries.
Q) Do you think that the GCC is stronger than ever before?
A) Under the directives of its leaders, it is advancing steadily and carefully in line with the requirements of each phase and a lot has been accomplished. It is true that it has not met the high aspirations and ambitions of some people but it has achieved a lot. If we look at the accomplishments over the past 28 years, we will see that the process has raised public awareness of the importance of cooperation in the Gulf region, which is necessary in an era of large conglomerates.
It produced a fundamental centre, let alone the unprecedented gains that it achieved for Gulf citizens through economics and the mechanisms designed by the Customs Union in light of the increase in trade between member states, consolidation of competitiveness in the capabilities of national industries, and the increase in the GCC’s negotiating potential and the announcement of the launch of the Gulf Cooperation Common Market last December. In the forthcoming summit, the agreement on currency unification will be approved and the monetary council will be established paving the way for creating the Central Bank and the launch of the currency on time.
In my capacity, I can say that more accomplishments will be achieved on the level of joint cooperation. Each team has ambitions that it seeks to achieve according to a progressive program. Accomplishments are achieved through political will, and this is what exists within this cohesive Gulf group, which makes decisions according to a consensus of opinions. Despite the daunting challenges it has faced over the years, the GCC is based on achieving goals on time and steadfastness in its capacity as a strategic option for the Gulf people.